Jan. 3, 2010

Cold Watercolor

by Wyatt Prunty

We saw the birds jockeying for the feeder.
Inside, the networks fed us New Year's Day.
And then there was the snow, in thick raw blots
Down past a row of windows where it caught,
Turning the sills to ridges, as outside
The streets, houses, and yards thickened
From their named and numbered ways into
A watercolor unreadably white . . .
And all the while the manic snow descending,
Sometimes glazed against a pane but mostly
Falling from itself into itself
Under a low, bruised, and indefinite sky . . .

Until the things I watched to measure change,
A recent stump, raised flower beds, porch steps —
Had disappeared, with the snow still falling
And the gray January light fading,
Fusing the trees and houses in one shade . . .
Suddenly a shadow now, beyond the glass
That mirrored us with looking out,
Ourselves out there, watches and rings reversed —
As reporters had the years reversed,
We said, looking out, seeing us looking in.

Later, the snow stopped and clouds cleared,
Our local ceiling shrank to absolute.
Standing outside, we swayed with gazing up,
Swayed because the stars were high and deep,
How odd that something overhead was deep,
And still the snow's thick watercolor white.
And then there were the brisk good-byes —
Closing an afternoon and evening spent
In the snow's knee-deep and numberless house,
Where, the usual wishes being said,
The door left standing wide, its angled light
Fanning the stalled abandoned plow,
We let the buried street run on ahead,
As following our shadows from the porch,
We stepped out of the light into our whitened way.

"Cold Watercolor" by Wyatt Prunty, from The Run of the House. © The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1899 that The New York Times used the word "automobile" in an editorial, the first known use of that word in English.

What would eventually come to be known as automobiles were still very new items, and the first mass production of them in America was two years away. The New York Times seemed equally disturbed by the machines themselves and the fact that there was no good word for them. It concluded: "There is something uncanny about these new-fangled vehicles. They are all unutterably ugly and never a one of them has been provided with a good, or even an endurable, name. The French, who are usually orthodox in their etymology if in nothing else, have evolved 'automobile,' which, being half Greek and half Latin, is so near to indecent that we print it with hesitation."

It was on this day in 1496 that Leonardo da Vinci (books by this author) tested out one of his flying machines and failed. He sketched out all sorts of possible flying machines, some similar to modern helicopters, others ornithopters, machines that would stay aloft by beating their wings, like a bird. And he did a rough sketch of something like a parachute. In 2000, a skydiver built this parachute-like contraption according to Leonardo's design, and he managed to drop for more than 7,000 feet with it.

It's the birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien, (books by this author) born John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in Bloemfontein, South Africa (1892). His father, a banker, had moved to South Africa for work, but he died when Tolkien was four years old, and his mother moved the family back to England. They lived in a rural village outside the city of Birmingham. Train tracks went right beyond their house and young Tolkien was drawn to the Welsh names on the sides of coal cars, names like Nantyglo and Senghenydd. And his mom tutored him in Latin, and as a young child he was fascinated by the way that language worked. When he was eight years old, his mom converted to Catholicism, and her family was so upset that they disowned her. Now the family, which hadn't had much money anyway, had even less.

And then, when Tolkien was 12 years old, his mother died from complications of diabetes, and he and his younger brother were put in the care of a Catholic priest. He went to a good school, started inventing his own languages, and formed a literary group called the T.C.B.S., friends who exchanged ideas and critiqued each other's work. He graduated, got into Oxford. But before he started, he took a summer trip with friends hiking in the Swiss Alps, and much later when he wrote about Bilbo Baggins hiking the Misty Mountains, he used his memory of that summer in the Alps.

But as a teenager starting at Oxford, he had no desire to write fantasy novels. Instead, he was interested in language. He studied Classics, Old English, Finnish, Welsh, and the Germanic languages. He went to fight in WWI, spent four months on the Western Front and then got trench fever and was sent home to recover. All but one of his friends from the T.C.B.S. literary group were killed in the war, and to honor them and also to help work through his own awful war experiences, he decided to write down some stories. They were stories about elves and gnomes, but they were not cheery fairy tales — they were filled with war and violence and trenches dug under battlefields.

It's the birthday of women's rights activist Lucretia Mott, (books by this author) born in Nantucket, Massachussetts (1793). She and Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention for women's rights, which in turn helped launch the women's suffrage movement, although women were not given the right to vote until 1919, almost 30 years after Mott's death. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that Lucretia Mott "brings domesticity and common sense, and that propriety which every man loves, directly into this hurly-burly, and makes every bully ashamed."

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